Everyone is waiting

My lovely friend Tanya Marlow has a new book out: Those Who Wait: Finding God in Disappointment, Doubt and Delay. Her first book, Coming Back to God When You Feel Empty, was a thought-provoking study on the book of Ruth, centering on the experiences of the main characters, Ruth and Naomi. Tanya’s writing is excellent – clear, honest and insightful – so I’m looking forward to reading the new book, in which she says we “enter into the minds of four ordinary saints who had to wait”. I’ve also heard it’s “Beautiful, helpful and, most of all, encouraging” and “creative, engaging and timely”. Sounds good to me.

Tanya knows a bit about waiting. She has suffered from ME for several years and experienced all the frustration, longing, hope, and disappointment that goes with chronic illness.

My blog post today is part of the synchroblog on waiting, to celebrate the release of Those Who Wait: Finding God in Disappointment, Doubt and Delay. See more here and link up to the synchroblog here.

When I saw Tanya’s announcement about the synchroblog, my second question (after wondering what on earth a synchroblog was) was whether I would have time this week to write a whole blog post.

The answers: first, a synchroblog is when lots of people write blog posts on the same theme and link them all up, and second, no, I didn’t have time.

But Tanya herself had written a poem, and that reminded me about a poem I wrote a few years ago. It’s about waiting for God to reveal himself, wondering if I was doing the right things or waiting in the right way. So here it is, as my contribution (three days late, but some things are worth waiting for, right?):

Waiting

In the silence I believe;
by faith I hold on.
I wait to receive
but my strength is near gone.

I need nothing less
than your living word.
Could I look somewhere else?
No – there’s no other God.

I can’t turn away,
So I stare at the cloud.
Will love find a way?
Am I just too proud

to see into the place
where your glory hides?
Will you show me your face
if I humble my pride?

I long for this
(as I look for dawn’s light):
To be waked with a kiss
from this soul’s long, dark night.

 

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Incoming – a review

Art can be beautiful, thought-provoking or emotive. Incoming, the 52 minute film about refugees by the filmmaker and photographer Richard Mosse, is all three. I saw it at the Barbican Curve a few weeks ago and its images still play in my mind.

It was shot with a thermal camera (the kind used by armed forces to find their enemies). Variations in brightness represent patterns of heat and cold instead of visible light and shadow, producing an eerie effect.

Three 8-metre screens displayed different views of the same scene or related images, like a crazy altar triptych. The film opened with footage of a military plane making its way to a town. At first the plane was just a small blur, noiseless, with radar bleeps for the soundtrack. Then we heard the engine noise and the sound became ever more threatening. By the time the plane fired its cannon at the town I felt unbearably tense. The buildings seemed to burn silently, almost elegantly. We were left to imagine the chaos beneath the plumes of smoke.

A scene of migrants being rescued from a lifeboat in the sea followed. (The whole film is in slow motion, giving every scene a sense of heightened awareness.) My first tears fell when I saw children about the age of mine being passed up to the rescue boat. What would it be like to see your children in mortal danger and to rely on strangers to save them? How helpless I would feel if my child complained of being cold and I couldn’t just say, “Put your jumper on,” because we had nothing but the wet clothes on our backs.

Then there was a close up of two people in headscarves, laughing in the sun. They bent down out of view. At first I thought they were refugees, kneeling to pray. Then they reappeared holding a missile, about 2 metres long. I realised they were soldiers wearing bandanas. They attached the bomb to an aeroplane. The engine started. The heat from the exhaust (visible in this strange world of thermal vision) got brighter as the noise crescendoed. The ground crew crouched down and it looked like they were praying to this powerful machine, an idol of a god of power and violence. I felt the seductiveness of the desire to control this beast, with its eye-drawing blaze and its roar that gets into your bones. But the missile was built to kill and destroy, somewhere out of sight. And the god of violence is not easily satisfied.

Later the film showed children playing in a sports hall in a refugee camp, next door to their bunk beds arranged in tiny cubicle homes. They laughed, they ran, they did gymnastics, they wrestled, they lived. The guards sitting idly watching them seemed lifeless in comparison, with blank eyes (the camera shows no iris or pupil – presumably the fronts of eyeballs are a uniform temperature).

Another scene showed people watching as their village burned. Firefighters’ visors reflected the blaze. Young men worked hard rescuing religious artworks from the church. Skin colour is invisible to the thermal camera but in close up we saw patches of heat on the men’s bodies. I felt I was intruding, looking under their skin to see their muscles heat up as they lifted large framed pictures of Mary and Jesus. What did this Jesus think as he gazed serenely from his canvas? Did he think about intervening?

I cried after I left the exhibition – because of the suffering I’d seen, because of “Man’s inhumanity to man” and because of the frustration engendered by my own helplessness. “I’ve got to do something,” I thought again, my sense of determination immediately undermined by a voice in my head answering, “You’ve said that before. What can you do? Who are you to make any difference to this horror?”

But I’ll give it a shot.

The lies shops tell us

I used to love clothes shopping. I loved the endless possibilities for a new image. I loved hunting for bargains — a skirt for £5 that looked better than ones sold for £30, maybe. I loved the little thrill of getting something new. And there was always the tantalising hope that this new outfit would make people think I was more cool/attractive/interesting.

A few years ago, this changed. When walking through a large shopping centre I found myself torn emotionally. Part of me was still drawn to the styles and colours under the bright lights, but part of me was slightly nauseated. I didn’t know why.  Over the years this distaste for shops grew. Clothes shops seemed worst but I found all shops selling new things made me uneasy.

One day a few months ago, looking down at a supermarket from the mezzanine floor cafe, I realised why.

The shops were lying to me.

It’s a lie that the cost is only what the price label says.

Behind the seemingly endless rows of shiny, brightly coloured packaging, my heart glimpsed what retailers don’t want customers to see: the people in factories and tea plantations and rice paddies, the polluted rivers, the burning coal.

The boxes are stacked so tightly on the shelves that usually we can’t see the people who produced their contents. The clothes are so clean and look so abundant that it seems inconceivable that they could have been sewn by someone who was only allowed one toilet break in a 14 hour shift and earned pennies for a day’s work.

Shops make getting new stuff look as easy as lifting it off the shelf. But much of what we buy is cheap only because someone else is bearing the true cost.

Every few years some clothing brand or other gets bad publicity for something: sweatshops, workers killed in a fire, or violation of trade union rights. There’s talk in the media of a boycott; then it’s forgotten.

But the brands hit by front-page scandals are just the ones unlucky enough to get caught by a newsworthy scandal. According to the UK charity Labour Behind the Label, systemic human rights abuses pervade the global garment industry. Workers on poverty wages regularly work 14-16 hour shifts in cramped conditions, with few breaks, inadequate toilets, and harassment from bosses. Fatal accidents are common.

Air pollution in Chinese cities causes cardiovascular disease, cancer and asthma. It’s so bad that life expectancy in the north of China (where the worst pollution is) is 5.5 years lower than in the south. One-fifth to one-third of that pollution is due to manufacturing goods for export.

When I buy a Chinese-made toy in a shop in the UK, nothing from what I pay for it goes toward the cost of inhalers for children whose asthma was caused by pollution from the coal plant which supplied electricity to the factory where my toy was made. None of the price of my new leather shoes compensates the people living near the Indian tannery for cancer caused by chromium pollution.

As Labour Behind the Label puts it, “No-one should live in poverty for the price of a cheap t-shirt.”

Clothes have their benefits. They can express your personality, help you fit in with a group, or help you stand out. They can even keep you warm. But they can’t win you love. They won’t instill lasting respect in others. And the thrill of the new doesn’t last long.

I don’t want people to live in poverty, get sick or die just so that I can buy new clothes more often. Much less do I want people to suffer for my mistaken belief that fashionable clothes are a shortcut to a new me.

Here’s a few things I’ve tried to do:

  1. Think about the things’ history when I am deciding what to buy. Who grew or produced them? Did they get fair wages? Just being aware of the people behind the products is a good start.
  1. Look out for ethical certification labels. Where there’s a choice of products, even if it costs more (which it usually does), I buy Fairtrade and organic. Fairtrade products guarantee a minimum price goes to the producers and a premium to their community.
  1. Subscribe to Ethical Consumer to find out which retailers and manufacturers are best and worst. They research companies and products and produce score tables for how ethical a brand or product is. The website has quite a bit of information you can see even if you don’t subscribe.
  1. Ask questions of the mainstream brands. Campaigners say companies notice comments on social media particularly.
  1. Buy secondhand. It requires a bit of charity shop trawling but I almost never need to buy brand new clothes for my family. There are also lots of selling websites and Facebook groups for buying all sorts of things secondhand. And through Freecycle and similar social media groups you can get many things for free.

Sometimes it all seems too hard. The global problems look as big as the globe and the well of my compassion seems to dry up quickly in the heat of daily life. Sometimes it seems impossible to meet the competing demands of bank balance, health, family, and ecology, even before I begin to consider the people in countries I’ve never been to who sewed my jeans and picked the beans for my coffee.

But they are people. They are made in the image of God. They are my neighbours. I will keep trying to see through consumerism’s lies.

 

What we’re thinking about our life

A couple of years ago we started trying to live more sustainably in the sense of using no more than our fair share of the earth’s resources.We came to see that the need for creation care and a sustainable lifestyle is a matter of justice for the global poor, since the poorest communities tend to be hardest hit by climate change and environmental degradation.

We also became increasingly aware that we live in a world of monstrous injustice and inequality (millions starving while others live in luxury), and that we are in part responsible through both our action and our inaction. For example, we exploit the poor by buying products manufactured in ways that harm other people (through dangerous working conditions, low pay, and pollution). We may not directly employ the workers but when we buy cheap goods and fail to ask who’s paying the real cost, we are responsible.

Inaction is as bad: we fail to share our food while others go hungry. Our economic and social systems encourage us to seek security and comfort at the expense of almost anything else.

We are now coming to realise that not only has our comfort come at the expense of the well-being of others, it has come at the expense of authenticity in our own lives. Because we have fallen for consumerism’s lie that a person’s identity depends on what they own and what they experience, we have failed to give other people the time and honesty necessary to form and maintain deep relationships.

If the way we live is bad for the planet, bad for other people and bad for us, we want to change. Through investigating how to reduce our ecological footprint, we realised that it would be hard to reduce it much while still living in a one-family house and commuting to work.

We wondered if there was better way to live and to love and were inspired to find out about many Christians living lives of radical love in intentional communities, sharing their possessions and their hearts with each other and with the poor and marginalised. (Not all Christians are called to live like that, of course, but we feel it could be the way for us.)

The Simple Way community has been especially inspirational – we read The Irresistible Revolution and every few pages found ourselves saying, “Yes! This is what the church should be like!”

Radical changes in our lifestyle seem necessary but it’s too hard to do alone. We’re looking for people to help us (in any way) live more in line with these values:

  • Community – because relationships are more important than things.
  • Sharing – recognising our interdependence, and because fairness demands that we share our plenty with those who have little.
  • Embracing “enough” – because the continual struggle for more never leads to contentment.
  • Giving – because others need things that we can provide and because giving is an antidote to greed in ourselves.
  • Living prophetically – because others need to both hear and see that there is an alternative.
  • Integrity (owning and living out of our whole self, brokenness included) – because God has chosen the weak things to shame the strong, the foolish things to shame the wise.
  • Engagement with those who differ – because we do not have all the answers and must recognise that we can learn from others.
  • Grace and love – because this must not be just another ideology.  If we have not love, we gain nothing.

We don’t have fixed ideas about the practicalities and have yet to work out how our own personalities and skills would contribute to the work of a community (we’re very different to Shane Claiborne, for example). Whilst we don’t want to remain distant from individuals, we are convinced of the need to work against unjust systems as well as showing love to particular people. Maybe we will find an established community we can join, maybe we will find other people to start one with, or maybe we will do something different.

We’ll be posting about more of our ideas and how we get on putting them into practice, so please follow the blog to hear more. Thank you!